The public’s trust in journalists has dropped significantly in recent years.

Is anyone surprised?

Today has seen a classic example of why the profession is suffering such a bad image.

The Sun splashes a “world exclusive” about twin baby girls abandoned by their ageing parents “because they were the wrong sex” at a Midlands hospital after being conceived through IVF treatment in India.

But, later, The Guardian reveals a very different tale. The babies were not abandoned, they have been switched to a different hospital, the parents are by their side, neither the police or social services are involved.

So who do we believe?

The Sun’s story is as sensational as we have come to expect. The Guardian has carried out some fairly simply checks.

The biggest problem with this story is the way it was immediately latched upon by other media and retold as the truth, clearly without any basic journalism – such as a quick phone call to the police, local NHS Trust or social services to try and get confirmation.

That is all it would have taken.

Perhaps, in these days of instant news and increased competition from any number of independent sites and individual bloggers, the need to get a story out as quickly as possible over-rides basic journalism training.

Web traffic is all-important these days, as is being the first with the news – truth and fact have apparently slipped down the list of importance.

That is why several radio stations carried the news almost as it had been written in The Sun – some even had “expert comment” from campaign groups about the horrendous nature of this story. That is why it was also picked up by TV news and the internet.

I am staggered by The Sun’s original story. But I’m amazed at how so many other established media outlets jumped on the story and ran it without too much in the way of fact-checking.

There is a brief, but informative discussion regarding some of these issues in The Birmingham Post on a viral campaign picked up as a “news story” around the world.

Having read the main post and comments, I was left with three straight-forward questions swirling around my head regarding journalists and media groups:

  • When did journalists decide that picking up a phone to check basic facts wasn’t necessary?
  • When did it become acceptable to regard information found on the internet as “safe” without proper verification?
  • Why don’t media organisations care about their credibility these days?

The need for the traditional mainstream media to engage with new audiences by making use of new technology is pressing, to say the least.

But shouldn’t the need to maintain credibility and trust in what we read, hear and see be paramount?

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3 responses »

  1. Ursula says:

    Paul, of course it should be paramount. But this doctor diagnoses that we live in the age of an attention span shorther than a bee’s sting.

    It therefore is almost immaterial what is spewed out – take brief notice, turn page, forget. There is such a flood of information coming at us from all sides that facts are cheap and skimmed by most. It’s a tragedy for people working in your profession who still take seriously what they do. Of course there are the David Finkelstein and Matthew Parris et al of the broadsheets, and a fine job they do. But sometimes a serious reader feels like trying to find a gold nugget in an already mined and abondened stream..

    What you describe saddens me; in the late sixties my father worked for a well known German magazine as a ‘reporter’, defined as someone who, often under cover, would really go to the heart of a story. Some of the subject matter would take weeks, months to research, away from home and family; sometimes so contentious that his name was not even put to the published article, in order to protect him. A young man, passionate about what he did, eventually disillusioned, he turned his back and left. I wish he hadn’t.

    I am sure that type of journalism still exists but in the age of the soundbite we, the reader, have to seek it out and you, the journalist, have to fight for it.

    Unfortunately, journalism, for reasons unfathomable to me, has always had a bad reputation. I don’t understand, neither will I ever, nor do I wish to. However the current damage is done from within the profession – so I am afraid there is little answer to your original question.

    U

  2. Rick says:

    These do indeed seem to be dark days for journalism, whether print of broadcast. A former White House spokesperson has just released a book where he says that the US networks basically bought the White House propaganda for going to war in Iraq. In response a TV journalist has said she felt pressure from executives to produce pro-war stories because the president’s approval ratings were high at the time.

    Ultimately it is the consumer who is to blame. When we collectively demand the truth (by not buying tabloids or celebirty gossip rags or whatever other garbage) then the media will change.

  3. Paul Groves says:

    Ursula: Thank you. Plenty there to make me think and more than likely inspire to return to this subject sooner or later.

    Rick: I can’t help thinking there has always been a “chicken and egg” query about the success of tabloids – what came first, the tabloid approach or our collective demand for such publications? Do the tabloids simply reflect and by their nature exaggerate what we really want, or do we act like sheep and follow the crowd simply because we don’t think there’s an alternative or we’re not prepared to make changes? My answer tends to change as often as my attitude towards growing a beard – a lot.

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